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Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless  “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community.  They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans:  the self-contained individual is all.  The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

Friendship, in the sense of a durable bond of deep affection achieved without regard for utilitarian gain, lives an uneasy life in America. Aristotle believed deep friendship is a cornerstone of democracy because it establishes a moral model for relations within the City. It acknowledges our essential human equality and interdependence.

The Enlightenment, for all its many benefits, dispensed with ideas about the moral or political importance of friendship, or sympathy, or empathy. Kant was especially keen to separate his moral imperative from squishy emotional attachment. That view gets human nature wrong, of course. We know that now thanks to advances in the human sciences, which reveal that we are born to be friends.

Democracy can’t survive as blood sport; it is a stranger to the dog-eat-dog fighting pit.  I think our current economic difficulties offer evidence aplenty.

What does True Grit have to say about all this? Surely most of us are familiar with the story. In the 1870’s, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires the crusty and cantankerous Rooster Cogburn to help her track down and kill or capture her father’s murderer. A middle-aged Mattie narrates the story of her past. In the course of their adventures, the wild and wooly Rooster develops a deep affection for Mattie. And Mattie, after a fashion, reciprocates.

As written by Portis, though, the characters depart from the usual American melodrama. Mattie is no picture of innocence. She’s all about vengeance. Mattie’s a fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian who reduces her relationships to utilitarian cash calculations. Rooster manages to open her heart a bit, and we love her because this spark lives in her. At one point in the book, the adult Mattie acknowledges the inhumanity of her faith in Election (humans are fallen and can’t do anything about it; God decides or elects the saved).

I confess [Election] is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it.

Rooster is distant and uninterested in Mattie at first. He gets involved for the possible reward money. He’s lonely, though, and as they ride along, Rooster can’t help but tell stories of his past broken relationships and lost friends. In the end, the villains are vanquished. But Mattie has been bitten by a rattlesnake. Rooster, in an almost impossible act of love and endurance that kills Mattie’s horse and almost kills him, saves her life with a heroic journey to a faraway doctor. Mattie thinks of true grit as a blinkered, world-be-damned determination. Turns out to have more to do with love and friendship.

The budding friendship doesn’t last beyond the adventure, except, maybe, in their hearts. A quarter century later, Mattie hears that Rooster is appearing in a Wild West Show in Memphis. When she arrives to visit him there, she discovers he died three days earlier, of something he called “night hoss.” It’s a cowboy reference to nervous ponies that keep them awake at night. (Early in the novel Rooster says he has no such regrets: “I sleep like a baby. Have for years.”). Despite that bluster, Rooster’s night hosses are likely the loss of friendship and connection he’s suffered. He’s died of a perpetually broken heart.

For her part, Mattie has never married, and from her tone, never made another friend. Hers is a cautionary tale.

The Coen brothers and their longtime composer-collaborator Carter Burwell accent the theme with a beautiful score based on 19th Century Christian hymns. By choosing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the filmmakers manage sly references to two very different American movies, 1943’s The Human Comedy and 1955’s Night of the Hunter. Frank Rich described the story of The Human Comedy as a “Whitmanesque vision of the country…a fairy tale dream of democracy.”

In Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum plays a sociopath, a serial killer on the trail of two children. In the former film is the promise of community; in the latter, the psychopathology of the loner – the rugged individual in the extreme.

Like True Grit, both movies involve children’s tragic losses. And both employ the song, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” As used in True Grit, the song evokes Mattie’s faith. At the same time, the “everlasting arms” also seem to refer not to God, but to a faith in fellow humans. The last time we hear it, before the credits, the snake-bit Mattie is literally in Rooster’s arms.

By mixing up the standard narrative, Portis and the Coens awaken us to the promise – and the difficulty – of friendship in our American condition. They are telling a good yarn, but it’s a tale that subverts the romance of the rugged individual. It’s tragic that the tale can’t end happily. Today, such an ending wouldn’t ring true. Tomorrow, maybe, because like Rooster, a part of all of us knows there “is no beat of a good friend.”

Watch the clips of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” from both The Human Comedy (sung as a song of brotherhood and solidarity on a troop train) and Night of the Hunter (sung by the stalker Mitchum as a murderous taunt from the dark). Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell (a self-proclaimed preacher in the fire-and-brimstone tradition), has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on the knuckles of his right and left hands, at the ends of his not-so-everlasting arms. These clips carry similar tattoos.


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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith